The Complex

The Obama Administration's Last-Gasp Effort to Control Afghanistan's Most Notorious Prison Just Failed

Afghan President Hamid Karzai carried through on a plan long dreaded by the U.S. on Thursday, releasing 65 detainees despite fervent protestations from U.S. military commanders that the men were violent insurgents who had killed American and Afghan troops in the past -- and were likely to return to the battlefield and do so again in the future.

The move is the latest issue driving a wedge between Karzai and the Obama administration, nominal allies who have been waging an increasingly vitriolic war of words for months. But it's more than that: It's a signal, coming through loud and clear, that Afghanistan will no longer allow the U.S. to exert influence over its justice system or control a notorious military prison that has been the site of alleged abuse for years.

From the American point of view, the detainees represent the very sort of sinister elements that coalition forces have fought in Afghanistan for years. The U.S.-led military coalition in Kabul warned repeatedly before the release that some of the detainees were linked through fingerprint analysis and biometrics to laying improvised explosive device attacks and other acts of violence. Detainees among the group of 65 were "directly linked" to the killing or wounding of 32 coalition military personnel and 23 Afghan security forces or civilians, U.S. military officials said.

"It's a huge disappointment and yet another indication that the relationship between the U.S.A. and Hamid Karzai is permanently shattered," retired Navy Adm. Jim Stavridis, the top commander of NATO from 2009 to 2013, told Foreign Policy. But all is not lost, he added.

"Hopefully after the April election, we can rebuild and reset with  a new government and, above all, the vast majority of Afghans, who support a positive, robust relationship between our nations," Stavridis said.

Karzai has more at play than his frayed relationship with the United States. The Afghan president has been walking a diplomatic tight-rope for months, simultaneously negotiating future U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan while also seeking peace talks with the Taliban, which ruled the country until the U.S. invaded in 2001 after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.

On Thursday, Karzai blew off  U.S. concerns about the detainees, effectively saying he was tired of U.S. officials meddling in Afghan politics and policy making, despite the years, billions of dollars and hundreds of lives that the U.S. has spent building the government in Kabul and keeping it in power.

"Afghanistan is a sovereign country," the Afghan president said after attending a meeting with Pakistani and Turkish officials in Turkey, according to Radio Free Europe. "If Afghan judicial authorities decide to release a prisoner, it is of no concern to the United States and should be of no concern to the United States. And I hope that the United States will stop harassing Afghanistan's procedures and judicial authority and I hope that the United States will now begin to respect Afghan sovereignty."

Control and treatment of the detainees has been a contentious issue right along. They have been held at a prison north of Kabul near Bagram Air Base. Frequently known as the Detention Facility in Parwan, the facility has been a target of human rights advocates for years. They allege that the United States ran a secret "black jail" there to interrogate - and possibly torture - detainees. Some were allegedly held there for weeks or months at a time.

Last March, after weeks of delays and frustration, the Pentagon announced that an agreement had been reached to transfer control of the detention facility to Afghanistan. A senior U.S. official told reporters at the time that a key element to the agreement was the inclusion of a provision that would allow U.S. and Afghan officials to work out any disagreements about whether a detainee was too dangerous to be released. But unlike an earlier arrangement, the United States no longer had the power to veto the release of detainees if they thought it was necessary.

That loose agreement appears to have completely fallen apart. U.S. military officials said the detainees were released "despite repeated requests from U.S. Forces - Afghanistan and others to consider the hard evidence and strong investigation leads" provided by the military coalition. Afghan officials responded by telling the New York Times at they found "no concrete and credible evidence" to keep the detainees imprisoned.

The issue is even bigger than that, though. The U.S. handed 889 men over to the Afghan government last March. Of those, an Afghan review board decided to release 648, leaving 112 to be prosecuted. The wrangling over the 65 detainees released Thursday actually ties in with a larger argument about how an additional 23 detainees should be handled, according to a detailed analysis of the situation by the Afghan Analysts Network, an independent think tank. Many of the other 23 also are likely to be released.

Although there appears to be credible evidence against many of the detainees, Karzai appears to see them as victims of U.S. oppression, the analyst network said. In January, Karzai called the Parwan prison a "factory" for Taliban fighters, saying innocent citizens were tortured there into hating their own country. He added at the time that the United States should leave Afghanistan entirely by the end of the year if it can't "bring peace," a nod toward getting the Taliban to negotiate with Karzai's government.

Releasing detainees now, then, would appear to give Karzai a victory over the U.S. when speaking with Taliban leaders - something he has been doing secretly, according to the New York Times. The Afghan president already has signaled that he won't sign a bilateral security agreement negotiated between the U.S. and Afghanistan until after an election is held in April, raising the prospect that the U.S. may leave entirely. It's unclear which side Karzai considers to be his better bet at this point.

Note: This story was updated at 6:15 p.m. to include comments from Adm. Stavridis.

SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images

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